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Los Angeles Times, Published August 02 2012

Report of warning from Holmes’ psychiatrist highlights existence of campus threat teams

LOS ANGELES — The university psychiatrist who was seeing James E. Holmes, charged in the deadly mass shooting at a suburban Colorado movie theater, reportedly took her concerns about him to a school threat-assessment team.

Dr. Lynne Fenton told the campus Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment, or BETA, team of her worries about Holmes, but no action was taken, sources told the Denver Post.

University of Colorado-Denver officials could not confirm or deny the report, citing privacy restrictions and a gag order imposed by the judge sitting on the Holmes case.

But the reports highlight the existence of such teams — part of an early-warning system increasingly common at colleges across the nation — and raise questions about precisely what the teams can, and can’t, do.

Holmes, 24, was enrolled in a doctoral program at the school’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. He faces 24 charges of first-degree murder in connection with the July 20 shooting that left 12 dead and 58 wounded. The attack occurred during a showing of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Fenton, who has been identified in a court document as Holmes’ psychiatrist, is the director of student mental health services at the campus. She also helped start the assessment team there in 2010, said university spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery.

“She was a resource for the team,” Montgomery said of Fenton.

University Chancellor Don Elliman defended his school on Wednesday: “I believe, until it’s been demonstrated otherwise, that our people did what they should have done.”

But what the threat assessment committee did — or didn’t — do could raise legal questions. Some of the questions could focus on the criminal case; others could involve potential civil liability.

About 80 percent of colleges have some form of threat assessment team, said Brett A. Sokolow, executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association. The association has about 700 to 800 active members and serves as a clearinghouse for information related to threat assessment teams, including training and implementation.

The field surged after a 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech left 33 people, including the gunman, dead. It has continued to grow with successive tragedies.

Committees vary by institution, but in general a threat-assessment committee is charged with evaluating reports that a student or an employee is having a significant emotional or mental problem. The group then decides the level of risk and devises a strategy on how to help that person while protecting the college community, Sokolow said.

Membership in the committees usually includes at least one high-level administrator, a health service representative, a housing resident and a campus police officer.

“Teams don’t punish,” Sokolow said. “They are a caring and preventive mechanism.” They might make recommendations on short-term management of a problem or on longer-term help, such as counseling or medical treatment, he said.

It’s hard to evaluate such committees, because success often means that nothing seemingly has happened. “There are tons of success stories and people chiming in with great saves,” Sokolow said. “Many wish the media would look at we do, rather than just the down sides.”

Balancing the needs of the person who needs help with the safety of the college community can be tricky. Colleges generally face strict privacy laws governing students and patients, but they’re also required to give timely warnings of potential crimes that might represent a threat to other students.

The intersection of mental health and the law is a complicated one, however, and the committees have been linked to lawsuits, Sokolow said.

Perhaps the most well-known is the suit against Pima Community College, which suspended Jared Lee Loughner after he was identified as a person of concern by an assessment committee. Loughner has been charged in the 2011 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and 13 injured, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In contrast, a school in Georgia and its former president were found to have improperly called for an investigation into the student’s mental health, employment and grades because the student opposed plans to build a campus parking garage.